Thursday 27 June 2019, 05:36 AM
Countering China’s ‘String of Pearls’
By Sushil Sharma | Bharat Defence Kavach | Publish Date: 5/23/2019 2:55:36 PM
Countering China’s ‘String of Pearls’

China’s rise is changing the power dynamics in the Asia-Pacific region. Beijing’s encirclement of India as part of its policy called the ‘String of Pearls’ is now more visible.A serious military thrust is being made in countries which are India’s neighbours. China is extending its arc of influence in the Indian Ocean by several measures :Its  arming countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar; sinking countries in debt due to needless infrastructure projects; building new military bases and ports; sending an increasing number of submarines and survey ships in the Indian ocean; several Islands like Cocos (keeling) are being eyed by China; Djibouti on the East coast of Africa already has Chinese military base and more are to follow. 

Going by China’s assertive behavior in the South and East China Seas and also its disregard for International laws and UN backed decisions, India has concerns. Beijing has been working at a rapid pace to secure its new interests, and after having expanded itself in the Western Pacific, its natural course is the Indian Ocean. 

New Delhi would not want a situation like South China Sea where the dispute is frozen with no resolution in sight. Leave out the occasional verbal protests, Beijing is in good control over the South China Sea, where, as per the estimates of the US Energy Administration estimates, 11 billion barrels (bbl) of oil reserves and 190 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas reserves are available.

What India is doing? 

The Indian Navy has a target to ensure its dominance in the Indian Ocean by 2020. In July 2017, the Navy had started this mission-based deployment, tasked to patrol sea-shipping routes to the Straits of Malacca, an important “chokepoint” located south-east of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal. 

Patrolling off the straits of Sunda, Lumbok and Ombai Wetar—all in the eastern Indian Ocean region—started in phases thereafter. These straits are narrow ocean passes that connect the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea. Malacca accounts for the passage of 70 per cent of the world’s trade volume and energy.Leveraging the air bases at Campbell Bay, Car Nicobar and Port Blair has been the focus of the line of defence against an aggressive China for some time now. The Navy has positioned about 19 warships in the area and has built two floating docks to repair and refurbish warships.

Navy’s long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft, the Boeing-made Poseidon 8I planes, have been tasked with flying sorties, sometimes up to the South China Sea, almost daily from INS Rajali in Arakkonam, Tamil Nadu. In January 2015,  Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Barack Obama at their meeting in New Delhi unveiled a ‘Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region’.   

Conscious of Beijing’s Indian Ocean strategy, the Indian government is paying of attention to maritime security and to strengthening ties with the IOR islands and littorals. It has built a new port in Chahbar Iran, that is located some 250 kms west of Gawadar, it now has turn around facilities for its Navy in Oman, It has acquired rights in Sittwe  port in Myanmar  and is building fresh ties with Bangladesh including giving away scholarships to kin of ‘Mukti Jodha’s’ ( The freedom fighters).  In  Sri Lanka, India is eagerly looking to step up its security ties with the island nation. Chinese infrastructure and development projects such as the Hambantota port and the frequent docking of Beijing’s submarines at Colombo for “re-fueling and refreshment” is a growing concern for India. While India cannot block Beijing’s entry into the Indian Ocean game, New Delhi is in dire need of strengthening its own.

China weapons sales focus on Asia: In the past few years Chinas biggest benefactors of weapons exports have been Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma– all having a shared boundary with India and could potentially cause trouble for New Delhi by serving Beijing’s interests.Sweden-based think-tank, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), on March 11  released its five year ( 2014-2018)  assessment of the world arms trade ‘trends in international arms transfers ’. It shows how India’s and its neighbourhood are now global hot-spot for arms build-up.

Titled ‘Trends in International Arms Transfers-2018’, it says: “  Asia and Oceania accounted for 70  per cent of Chinese arms exports, Africa for 20 per cent and the Middle East for 6.1 per cent”. SIPRI is an independent international institute dedicated to research into conflict, armaments, arms control and disarmament.

The number of countries to which China delivers major arms has grown significantly over the past few years. In 2014–18 China delivered major arms to 53 countries, compared with 41 in 2009–13 and 32 in 2004–2008. In 2014–18 China became the largest exporter in the niche market of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), with states in the Middle East 

Pak, Bangladesh and Myanmar get these weapons: The bigger story is, however, China, which, in a sign of an omnipresent threat, has been helping Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar possibly to cause trouble for New Delhi in case of a conflict.  Its biggest benefactors, Pakistan and Bangladesh, accounted for 53 per cent of Beijing’s weapons exports during 2014-2018. Both countries got 70 percent of their weapons and equipment from China while Myanmar got 61 percent of its military equipment from China.

New Delhi sees China’s exports to countries around it as a part of its long-term strategy of having a ‘string of pearls’, a kind of military toe-hold in these countries.China’s exports to countries around India is a part of this same long — term strategy  that entails military tie- ups and bases in countries around India.  

An annual report of the US Department of Defence titled ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2018’, says “ In 2015, China signed an agreement with Pakistan for the sale of eight YUAN-class submarines; the first four submarines will be built in China and the remaining four in Pakistan. Other major Indo-Pacific customers of Chinese military equipment include Bangladesh and Burma. China delivered two MING-class diesel-powered attack submarines (SS) to Bangladesh in late 2016 and continues to market a variety of export submarine options at international trade shows.

Nepal is the new hot-spot: Chinese military personnel participated in a bilateral exercise with Nepal for the first time in April 2017. The exercise focused on counterterrorism operations and was preceded by a visit by China’s Minister of Defence, the first visit by a Chinese defence minister to Nepal in 15 years. On the social front, China is trying to de-link Nepal’s import dependence on India. Nepal's East-West Railway Network, and the Kathmandu-Pokhara-Lumbini network, will be linked to China-Nepal railway at the Rasuwagadi-Kerung border. This will bring Chinese pilgrims and tourists to Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, and to the popular valley of Pokhara. For India It means China gets direct access to heartland of Nepal. It will also mean Chinese Goods that , so far, travel from Shigatse (the last rail head) to Kathmandu by road will be transported on train, making the supply as rapid as Nepal gets from New Delhi.

China’s shift to militarily sustain at sea: For more than a decade the People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships have been doing anti-piracy duties off the coast of Aden.  It also sailed regularly into Karachi, however, PLAN never had the means to sustain its presence, especially in the event of a conflict. The shift has occurred in several small parts over the past few years.

The first move was to build ports or seek berthing rights on the basis of its deep pockets. It started off with Hambantota in Sri Lanka, followed by    Gawadar, located west of Karachi. Djibouti located on the “horn of Africa’ was  the next project where PLAN has base. Almost simultaneously China cornered visiting rights to Chittagong Port in Bangladesh besides turn around and berthing facilities in Myanmar.

China is now in the next phase that is to improve relations with the small island nations in the India Ocean to facilitate its increasing presence. Mauritius, Maldives and Seychelles – all three hold the key to Beijing’s aspirations in the Western part of the Indian Ocean.

In Maldives – a tiny country spread over nearly 1,192 islands spanning more than 90,000 sq km – located in Indian Ocean, some 800 kms south-west of Kerala,  has been swinging between China and India. It sits astride the busiest sea lane of communication (SLOC), through which China’s oil supplies from Gulf countries travel eastwards. The small nation has racked up an estimated US$1.3 billion of debt to China – more than a quarter of its GDP – mostly for large-scale infrastructure projects, a report by news agency Reuters said. China had leased at least 16 islets of the scattered islands which make up the country and were building ports and other infrastructure there.

In Mauritius China’s engagement has been based on investments that include a . 200,000 square metre real estate development; funding for the Bagatelle Dam; loans for construction of a new airport terminal, roads and hospitals. China is also Mauritius’ main trading partner, accounting for 18% of imports, ahead of India’s 16.5%. In Seychelles India’s plan to build a port had hit a roadblock. Inked in 2015, the port project has  the support of the ruling party and also the opposition, yet public protests have hinted at a Chinese subtext to these protests.

What does this mean? 

A decade ago, former Chinese President Hu Jintao talked of the “Malacca Dilemma” and the need to secure China’s strategic and economic interests in the region. For China, the debate boils down to two key points — either they find a way to reduce their dependency on the Malacca Straits or they maintain a credible presence in the Indian Ocean to equally secure the SLOCs. 

Beijing is relying more on economic initiatives to strengthen its ties with small but critical islands in the Indian Ocean. Beijing has always been concerned about the security of its oil and gas imports from the Middle East and Africa transiting through the Indian Ocean and the Straits of Malacca. What is emerging as a greater concern is the reliance on American forces to secure the sea lines of communications (SLOCs) and chokepoints along the route. With no sustainable presence in the Indian Ocean, Beijing’s energy imports are highly vulnerable in the event of a military standoff with New Delhi or Washington. 

Hence these small islands are emerging at the center stage of the unfolding power politics and are critical in sustaining China’s credible presence in the vast Indian Ocean outreach, Control over the Indian Ocean will help a nation emerge as true maritime power. Access to and control of islands (through military and commercial initiatives) seems to be a key part of China’s strategy to establish itself as a maritime power.

However, unlike in the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean cannot be controlled by one particular nation because of the sheer vastness of the area and the presence of multiple regional powers. What the Indo-Pacific region needs is a security architecture that can contain the territorial disputes in the Western Pacific and stop the hostility from spilling over to west of the Malacca strait.

Indian think –tank, the Observor Research Foundation (ORF) in a commentary published in March 2018 assures that China will take some time “As of now and probably for the next 15 years and more, China will not have significant military capability in the Indian Ocean, at least nothing compared to what India and the United States possess”. 

The answer to the ‘Mallaca Dilemma’ in Myanmar: Based in Kyaukpyu, one of  major towns of Myanmar’s Rakhine’s state , the zone includes a $7.3 billion deep sea port, oil and gas pipelines that will run from Rakhine’s coast to China’s Yunnan province and a $2.3 billion industrial park.

Kyaukpyu is a small port town in Myanmar and possibly Beijing’s answer to its “Malacca Dilemma.” The Chinese presence in Myanmar and the Bay of Bengal is too close for comfort for policymakers in New Delhi. However, undeterred by Indian concerns, China has continued to invest in Myanmar, resulting in two gas and oil pipelines ferrying Chinese energy imports straight from the Indian Ocean without crossing the Straits of Malacca. The first project to materialize was the gas pipeline connecting Kyaukpyu to Kunming in 2013.

The pipeline enables Beijing to completely avoid using the Malacca Strait and tap directly into Myanmar’s offshore gas fields. The second project is an oil pipeline starting from Maday Island in Kyaukpyu and transiting to China’s Yunnan province. The oil pipeline entered its operational stage in January 2015. This oil pipeline runs parallel to the gas pipeline, directly transferring Beijing’s oil imports from West Asia and Africa. The gas and oil pipelines help solve China’s “Malacca Dilemma,” increasing its energy security tremendously.  While the pipelines have great economic benefits for Myanmar as well, the underlying strategic dimension of the project cannot be overstated.

Coco Islands & Coco Keeling Islands: These are two separate entities, separated by thousands of miles. The  Coco islands are geographically a part of the Andaman group of islands, but under control of Myanmar. Since the early 1990s, there have been frequent reports of China using those islands for military and naval purposes but there is no certain proof of whether the islands are actually under Chinese control. Thus, Chinese presence on the Coco Islands, developing intelligence systems and other naval facilities, is unnerving for nearby India. There is acknowledgement on the building of runways and other connectivity infrastructure on the Coco’s.

With growing Chinese investments in Myanmar and developing ties between the two nations, Beijing’s military presence in the Cocos is definitely a possibility over time, if not an overnight development. A military presence in the Coco Islands,if truly established, would give China the edge to monitor India’s naval activities with other powers in the region. It will also affect other regional powers such as Australia and the U.S. and strengthen China’s foothold in the Indian Ocean.

Cocos (Keeling) Islands and their role is important. These are part of the Australian Indian Ocean territory and an area of strategic importance given the critical SLOCs that pass through the region. The Straits of Sunda is close by and the Straits of Lumbok are located eastwards. At present there are no military establishments in the islands, the Cocos could serve as a U.S. military base in the future as a result of competition for strategic space in the Indian Ocean. These islands could prove critical to Australia and its allies during a time of emergence in the Indian Ocean.  According to a report by the Wall Street Journal in February last year, Washington is looking to expand its maritime ties with Australia and India and hence is looking for a feasible Australian port and base to function out of. 

In February 2014, China carried out naval exercises through the Lombok Strait near Indonesia, deploying its largest landing ship, the Changbaishan. The drill was closely watched by countries like India, Australia, and the U.S., as it underlines China’s ability to project power beyond its shores. 

 

Tags:

China,String of Pearls,dynamics,neighbours,Beijing,military,Myanmar,Bangladesh,

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